“Singin’ in the Rain” works as both musical and comedy

“Singin’ in the Rain” routinely has been called the greatest of all screen musicals.

As one who is admittedly not a particular devotee of musicals, I would agree — largely because the movie works almost as well without the songs.

A good share of the credit belongs to a non-singing supporting player whose career sadly emulated the character she played.

The 1952 musical will be shown Saturday and Sunday in Hoquiam, as part of the 7th Street Theatre’s Silver Screen Classic series.

To be certain, “Singin’ in the Rain” has plenty of great music. Gene Kelly’s performance of the title number is often cited as the top song-and-dance routine in film history. Donald O’Connor’s gravity-defying, partially improvised rendition of “Make 'Em Laugh” represents the gold standard in acrobatic dancing.

The key to the film’s success, however, is that it is also exceptionally funny.

The plot revolves around Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films in the late 1920s.

Don Lockwood (played by Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are their studio’s premier silent-screen couple. Off screen, Lockwood loathes his venal co-star but Lamont — whose elevator doesn’t go quite to the top floor — believes they are on the verge of becoming engaged, because it said so in fan magazines. She’s not pleased, therefore, with the burgeoning relationship between Lockwood and starlet Kathy Selden (portrayed by 20-year-old Debbie Reynolds).

Following the release of “The Jazz Singer,” the studio chief decides to convert the latest Lockwood-Lamont silent swashbuckler into a musical. That’s no problem for ex-vaudevillian Lockwood, particularly since he’s played by Gene Kelly. But Lamont’s voice, which could curdle milk, seemingly spells the end to this profitable partnership.

Following a disastrous preview of the would-be musical, Lockwood’s buddy Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) comes up with the idea of having Selden dub Lamont’s voice. Since Lockwood has used her clout to get her romantic rival barred from the studio, the trick is to accomplish the dubbing without Lina’s knowledge.

The hilarious scenes of a frustrated director attempting to get his performers to talk into hidden microphones and scale back their theatrical gestures are based on actual incidents.

Reynolds and O’Connor spent most of their careers in comedies. Kelly’s broad comedic style, which sometimes can be grating, is appropriate for a character who admits that he’s a ham.

All, however, are upstaged by the relatively obscure Hagen, who affects a nasal bray patterned after Judy Holliday, a popular stage and screen comedienne of the 1950s. An inside joke is that Hagen uses her actual voice in a scene in which Reynolds is supposedly dubbing for her character.

Lina is intended to be the villain of the piece. But Hagen plays the role with such zest — putting a humorous spin on such routine lines as “I can’t stand it” and “What do they think I am, dumb or something?” — that the audience actually smiles when she’s on screen.

Perhaps because it was released only one year after “An American in Paris,” Kelly’s Oscar-winning musical, “Singin’ in the Rain” was badly undervalued in Academy Award nominations. It only received two, one for Hagen as supporting actress. In what now seems like a miscarriage of justice, she lost to Gloria Grahame’s good but unmemorable performance in “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

Like Lina, however, Hagen’s glory days were numbered.

Unable to parlay her Oscar nomination into film stardom, she eventually agreed to play Danny Thomas’ wife in television’s “Make Room For Daddy.” That long-running show was a hit, but Hagen felt constricted by the undemanding role and left the series after three seasons. She never received another significant movie opportunity.

It makes you wonder if film executives at the time were dumb or something.